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The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
The Book of Numbers, Bmidbar, describes the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the desert on their way to the Promised Land. Why devote an entire book to the desert experience?
Bmidbar represents an important stage in the journey of the people from slavery to freedom. The wilderness, far beyond its geographic or historic reality, enters the Jewish experience as a central metaphor for understanding who we are and what we must do.
By devoting an entire book to the wilderness experience, the Torah provides an important insight into the real achievement of freedom. Leaving Egypt in a moment of pure triumph is far easier than wrestling with the burdens of establishing a functioning community. Bmidbar shows us a people dealing with the mundane frustrations of gathering food, pitching tents, establishing new rules and customs, as well as defining its leadership.
Despite the problems and murmurings described in Bmidbar, this slave people raises a new generation of freeborn children. Here is a deeper understanding of the Exodus–the maturity of a people meeting the daily challenges of life in freedom with responsibility.
The true goal of the Exodus was to take Egypt out of the Israelites. The experience of the seemingly endless journey transformed a people–crushed, frightened, subservient and dependent — into a people with initiative, self-respect, anger at oppression and even militancy. The Israelites at the Jordan are a very different people from the one that left Egypt. They are ready to fight their own battles. They are a community committed to one another and to the covenant that binds them together.
Bmidbar reminds us that wherever we live, there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land, but the way to that land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get there except by joining together and marching day after day.
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